To hear the American government and its Israeli allies tell it, the struggle in the Middle East is a straightforward black-and-white one, which pits the Forces of Goodness (Washington and Tel Aviv) against “terrorists” and terrorist-supporting states like Iran and Syria. This narrative enables the Americans and the Israelis to mask their own agendas regional hegemony, territorial expansion (on Israel’s part), and access to cheap oil behind the “war on terrorism” rubric. It also lets them lump together groups including Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda that are not only different but opposed to each other’s interests, their only commonality being that they are Arab, Muslim, and armed. However, every once in a while, reality intrudes and the official narrative suffers a direct hit: the latest such incident is the recent attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus.
Syrian security forces gunned down three men who tried to blow up the U.S. embassy in Damascus Tuesday, wounding and capturing another. The upscale Abu Romana area, where embassies and the houses of the rich nestle near the presidential palace of Bashar al-Assad, was the scene of a 30-minute gun battle. Shouting religious slogans and firing RPGs, four Takfiri, reportedly members of Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Syria), a shadowy jihadist Sunni group vaguely affiliated with al-Qaeda, stormed the building. One Syrian guard was killed and two were wounded, in what is being described as a failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in front of the embassy. Eleven civilian bystanders were injured.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her gratitude for the Syrian response. Tony Snow echoed this uncharacteristic note of civility and thanks to the Syrians, opining that American gratitude “does not mean they are an ally. We are hoping they will become an ally and make the choice of fighting against terrorists.”
Syria a U.S. ally? What’s going on here? Damascus has long been at loggerheads with Washington, despite Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s best efforts to ameliorate the ferociously anti-Syrian policies and pronouncements of U.S. officials, including barely disguised threats of military action. Economic sanctions and a regular diet of anti-Syrian diatribes coming from the State Department, the Pentagon, and the executive branch have prevented any rapprochement, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon only exacerbated the situation. It’s quite a turnaround for the U.S., which had earlier accused the Syrians of orchestrating the assassination of Lebanese politician and entrepreneur Rafik Hariri, to now be thanking this alleged “terrorist” regime for taking casualties in defense of U.S. interests.
Not that there is much of an American presence in Damascus. U.S. ambassador Margaret Scobey did not hear the explosions, being a few thousand miles away in Washington after having been recalled by the State Department on the occasion of Hariri’s death. The Americans averred, without evidence, that the Syrians had killed the Lebanese businessman and rising political star but not even the kangaroo court set up by UN investigator Detlev Mehlis, with its “leaked” third-hand hearsay masquerading as “evidence,” could bring the case against Syria to a satisfactory close satisfactory, that is, to the Americans and their Israeli sidekicks, who used the assassination as a stick to beat up on the Syrians and force the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. A little over a year later, the Israelis invaded Lebanon and we can see who came out ahead in that little game.
Although Secretary Rice says it’s “too early” to know who was behind the attack, the Syrians who keep a very close watch on their neck of the woods are pretty certain: the Syrian ambassador to the U.S. said on CNN that Jund al-Sham, a Syrian Sunni fundamentalist terrorist group, is undoubtedly responsible, and therein lies a story
Jund al-Sham, loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in the Levant, including the assassination of a Hezbollah official. Now this last certainly seems like an odd task for a purportedly Islamist group to undertake. The ostensible motivation for this attack is the Shi’ite-Sunni rivalry: the Shi’ite Hezbollah is considered heretical, and therefore a target of Takfiri retribution, yet the confluence of interests between these “Soldiers of Syria” with the soldiers of Israel in the IDF is striking. Another oddity: the links between Jund al-Sham and a recently uncovered Israeli spy network in Lebanon.
Hussein Khattab, a Palestinian member of the spy ring which has been linked to several assassinations of Palestinian leaders and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon is the brother of Sheik Jamal Khattab, an Islamic cleric and recruiter for al-Qaeda in Iraq, who is, in turn, connected to Jund al-Sham. Furthermore, a suspiciously large part of Jund al-Sham’s activities in the Levant have been directed against Hezbollah. In July 2005, Jund al-Sham faxed a threat to the Shi’ite Fatwa Center in Tyre, vowing to murder several prominent Hezbollah figures, including former spiritual leader Sayyed Hussein Fadlallah. The group also issued a number of statements labeling Hezbollah “unbelievers” and thus justifiably targeted by “true” Muslims. Another coincidence: the assassination of Hezbollah leaders Ali Saleh and Ghaleb Awali, as well as Palestinian militants in Lebanon, previously claimed by Jund al-Sham, has been uncovered by the Lebanese security forces as the work of the Mossad ring.
The attack on the U.S. embassy underscores the reality of what is going on in the Levant, with Syria at the epicenter of a brewing Islamist storm and the U.S. and Israel objectively allied with radical Islamists seeking “regime change” in Damascus. Syria, with its secular government and moderate religious leaders, is an affront to the real terrorists, just as it is anathema in Washington and Tel Aviv. A rational American policy in the region would be to seek a reconciliation with Damascus and an alliance against al-Qaeda and the forces of religious extremism that represent a real threat to our interests. But U.S. interests have nothing to do with our Middle East policy, and that has been true for a long time.
Syria, too, is living in the shadow of a terrorist threat but it will be a cold day in hell before Washington ever recognizes that. All our policymakers care about is appeasing Israel and maintaining the support of that country’s vocal and very powerful Washington lobby and American interests be damned. Until that policy changes, the Syrians will be fighting a lonely battle against al-Qaeda in their country. I would merely point out that the interests of the Israelis and the Islamists are entirely congruent in the Levant: “regime change” in Damascus, and the elimination of the Hezbollah “unbelievers.” That, of course, is just a coincidence and no doubt a very useful one for all concerned.